Flash Gordon (1980)


Savior of the universe!

Savior of the universe!

(1980) Science Fiction (Universal) Sam J. Jones, Melody Anderson, Max von Sydow, Topol, Ornella Muti, Timothy Dalton, Brian Blessed, Peter Wyngarde, Mariangela Melato, John Osborne, Richard O’Brien, John Hallam, Philip Stone, Suzanne Danielle, William Hootkins, Bobbie Brown, Ted Carroll, Adrienne Kronenberg, Stanley Lebor, John Morton, Robbie Coltrane, Tessa Hewitt.  Directed by Mike Hodges

Sci-Fi Spectacle 2015

Flash Gordon began life as an Alex Raymond comic strip which was later made into serials in the 1930s. You may have seen them, with the phallic sparks-shooting space ships that made the annoying electric whine whenever they flew. In 1980, a movie version from Italian uber-producer Dino de Laurentiis made an indelible splash.

Audiences to this day are fairly divided about how they feel when it comes to the 1980 film. Some feel it’s campy to the point of silliness. Others admire the sumptuous visuals, the rock and roll soundtrack and the slithering performance of veteran Swedish actor Max von Sydow (who is incidentally cast in this December’s Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens). They’re both right.

“Flash” Gordon (Jones) is the starting quarterback for the New York Jets. He and Dale Arden (Anderson), a travel agent, are taking a private plane from Canada back to New York when a freak storm buffets the plane. Flaming meteorites impact the cockpit, sucking out the pilots. Gordon, who has taken flying lessons, manages to crash land the plane into the solarium of Dr. Hans Zarkov (Topol), a disgraced NASA scientist who thinks the Earth is under attack from an extraterrestrial force.

The problem is, he’s right. Ming the Merciless (von Sydow), emperor of Mongo, has decided to amuse himself by shoving the Moon out of the Earth’s orbit to crash into the Earth. Zarkov, knowing the only way to stop the catastrophe from happening is to go to Mongo for which Zarkov has conveniently built a rocket ship. Flash and Dale aren’t terribly enthusiastic about going but Zarkov insists – at gunpoint.

Once on Mongo they are captured and brought to the Emperor, who decrees that Zarkov is to be brainwashed into his service, Dale is to be used for his carnal pleasure and Flash is to be executed. Of course, none of these plucky Earthmen are going to go down quietly and with the help of Princess Aura (Muti), Ming’s oversexed daughter, Flash enlists the help of Prince Barin (Dalton) of Arborea and Prince Vultan (Blessed) of the Hawkmen to help overthrow Ming and save the Earth. But the clock is ticking, Ming is about to marry Dale and the Moon is getting ever closer to the Earth. Can Flash save the day?

Of course he can. This is a movie that has the cheese factor of an old pulp serial with none of the suspense. There is a cartoon-y element to it, with the vivid color palate used by the production design team and Hodges; this can be seen vividly on the wonderful video transfer on the Blu-Ray, one of the best ever. If you didn’t get to see it on the original theatrical run, by all means see it on the Blu-Ray. You’ll be glad you did.

Everything about this movie screams excess, from the lavish sets, the sumptuous visual effects and the S&M bondage costumes and of course, the Queen score. Given all of the elements of this film, I’m kind of surprised that the gay community hasn’t embraced this film more; there are a lot of themes going on here that seem to me to be complimentary to the ethos of the more flamboyant elements of that community.

A lot of the hardcore sci-fi fans have rejected the film, citing that it is about as scientifically inaccurate as the Republican party. In the film’s defense, it is based on a comic strip that never intended to be a science textbook; Raymond wanted his strip to appeal to the sense of adventure for kids more than to the sensibilities of a physicist.

The acting here is mostly over-the-top, with von Sydow in particular most delightful as the villainous Ming. Jones, on the other hand, is a bit wooden and a bit colorless; he simply doesn’t carry the movie at all considering he’s the title character. Methinks that he was distracted more by external issues than he should have been; in any case, this didn’t do any favors for his career.

I have to say that Queen’s soundtrack was as good as any soundtrack for any film; it perfectly fits the vibe of the movie. The propulsive theme song with its chorus “Flash…aaahaaaa…” and operatic guitars is almost iconic. Even those who haven’t seen the film have likely heard the song.

This isn’t rocket science (although it literally is). It’s just good old fashioned fun, with a winking self-awareness that tells us that the film doesn’t take itself terribly serious, which is in all likelihood a good thing. While the comic tone is the invention of the film (nearly every other film and TV incarnation of the comic strip has played it relatively straight), it seems to suit the material pretty well. If you don’t like camp chances are you’ll be irritated by this movie but if you don’t mind it and take it for what it’s worth, this is mind-blowing entertainment.

WHY RENT THIS: Visually gorgeous. Goofy fun. Queen soundtrack.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overdose on campy. Jones doesn’t carry the film the way he should. Less science and more fiction.
FAMILY VALUES: Some campy violence, a couple of disturbing images and plenty of sexual innuendo.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of Jones’ dialogue was dubbed by another actor; he had a falling out with de Laurentiis during post-production over lack of payment and refused to loop his lines until the situation was resolved, which it apparently never was.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Both the Savior of the Universe DVD Anniversary edition and the Blu-Ray have featurettes on comic book artist Alex Ross (who was much inspired by the movie, which he terms his favorite) and screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr., as well as the first chapter of the 1936 Flash Gordon serial starring Buster Crabbe, whose plot is very similar to the movie.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $49M (just UK and USA) on a $20M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (Blu-Ray/DVD Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu (download only)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Galaxy Quest
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Sci-Fi Spectacle concludes!

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2015 Florida Film Festival


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The Florida Film Festival has made their official announcement as to what movies and shorts they’ll be presenting this year and it is an impressive schedule indeed. Like last year, there will be 170 films on the schedule with more world premieres than the Festival has ever presented. There are also more movies by a very large margin directed by women this year.

As Enzian president Henry Maldonado is fond of saying about the Festival, there really is something for everybody. While we won’t be previewing every one of the 170 films being presented this year here, here are some to whet your appetite for the festival this year.

This year’s opening night film is Welcome to Me which stars Kristen Wiig as a socially challenged and borderline personality disorder woman who wins $86 million in the lottery and decides to purchase a talk show with it – with her as the host and the only guest. After her performance in last years The Skeleton Twins she’s definitely on the fast track to become one of the premiere comic actresses in Hollywood.

At the top of my personal list of must-sees at the festival is Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter which features Oscar nominee Rinko Kikuchi as a Japanese office drone caught in a dreary life. After watching Fargo and mistaking it for a documentary, she becomes obsessed with the idea that there is buried treasure in South Dakota – and she means to find it, setting off a journey that will change her forever. Fans of nature documentaries will get the opportunity to catch DisneyNature’s Monkey Kingdom a full week before it opens in theaters across the country as the intrepid DisneyNature camera crew heads into the jungles of Thailand to follow a family of monkeys displaced from their homes.

Previously reviewed here in Cinema365, The Search for General Tso looks at one of the most beloved Chinese-American dishes, how it came to be, and essentially the history of Chinese cuisine and culture in the United States. If it doesn’t make you hungry for Chinese food, I don’t know what will. Grazers looks at a farming co-operative that tries to survive in a world dominated by big agribusiness and increasingly hostile to small family farmers.

Aspie Seeks Love follows the search of a man afflicted with Asperger’s Disease for true love, which is a subject most of us can relate to. Limited Partnership follows the first same-sex couple in the world to get married and the obstacles they faced in merely trying to be allowed to live together in a documentary that is likely to get your blood boiling and your heartstrings tugged. Billy Mize and the Bakersfield Sound follows one of the most influential figures in modern country music that you’ve never heard of.

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared is an awkwardly titled but charming Swedish film about a dynamite expert who has lived a colorful life who decides to escape the retirement home he has been warehoused in on the occasion of his 100th birthday. X+Y is a lovely Irish film about a young man with social issues finding self-confident when he is selected to represent Ireland in the International Math Olympiad.

Sunshine Superman profiles Carl Boenish, the progenitor of base jumping which answers the question “Who was crazy enough to do it first?” Once Upon a Crime: The Borelli-Davis Conspiracy looks at a notorious murder in Denver that would expose corruption in the Denver police department as well as in the Denver media but would not break the friendship of two unjustly accused men.

The Tribe won the Grand Prix at Cannes this year and is entirely without dialogue, subtitles, music or sound effects, putting us in the world of the deaf-mute characters who are themselves played by deaf-mute non-professionals. Taking place in a school for deaf and mute teens, a new arrival learns to navigate the sometimes dangerous currents of a school ruled by a gang who with the tacit approval of the school’s administration are involved with drug trafficking, prostitution, extortion and assault.

The Editor is a midnight cult classic in the making from the wild Canadian filmmakers co-op Astron-6 who give us their take on an Italian giallo with a film editor who loses his fingers in a bizarre accident becomes the number one suspect when a series of gruesome murders take place among the lead actors of the bottom-feeding films he’s been working on. The Case of the Three-Sided Dream is a documentary about jazz legend Rahsaan Roland Kirk and his unique style of playing.

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead is the story of the National Lampoon, the magazine that began at Harvard and became the touchstone of comedy in the 70s and 80s, helping shape Saturday Night LiveSCTV, and a series of movies that included the Vacation series. Reversal is a horror tale of revenge and human trafficking that shocked audiences at Sundance earlier this year.

Tomorrow We Disappear follows the Bohemian residents of an Indian slum who are fighting to protect their homes from a developer who wants to build a shopping mall there. Welcome to Leith is a terrifying documentary about a white supremacist who attempts to take over a North Dakota town. The Keeping Room is the harrowing experience of three young women in the waning days of the Civil War trying to protect their farm from a pair of rogue Union soldiers. Gabriel follows a young man on a trial release from the hospital where he has been institutionalized for mental illness

The Festival will also be presenting three different movies on the Enzian lawn that are free admission for anyone who wants to come. (500) Days of Summer, Donnie Darko and Amalie are all quality movies and well worth seeing, particularly in the cozy confines of the Enzian lawn. As far as screenings for other films that aren’t new, Godard’s French New Wave classic Alphaville will be the closing night retrospective and Girl Happy will be presented in Winter Park’s Central Park.

As always there will be celebrity guests. The great Sam Rockwell, one of my favorite actors working today, will be present for a screening of maybe his best film, Moon, followed by a Q&A afterwards. Also, Bob Balaban will be on hand to talk about his long career as one of Hollywood’s best character actors and also a pretty good director in his own right.

There are also parties, panel discussions and informal get-togethers in the Eden Bar. It is an opportunity to rub shoulders with filmmakers and film buffs and talk about movies both famous and not. Those looking to buy tickets can still purchase packages that run from $50 for five vouchers for any five movies (which you can choose before they go on sale to the general public) to $180 for twenty. You can also get passes which range from the Matinee pass which admits you to all movies that begin before 5 PM (except for special screenings such as An Afternoon With…) for $99 to the fancy shmancy Producer Pass which gets you early entry to every film and entry to every event at the Festival. That’ll only set you back $1500. More popular is the Film Lover’s Pass which runs $600 and gets you early entry to all films, access to press screenings so you can get an early jump on your festival viewing and admittance to the opening night party.  Individual tickets go on sale this Saturday the 21st and can be purchased online, by phone or in person at the Enzian box office.

As with years past, Cinema365 intends to give as much coverage to the Festival as is humanly possible. All Festival-related reviews will include the Festival banner, which includes a link to their online ticketing system in case you want to purchase tickets yourself. There is also a link to it in the picture at the top of the post; just click on it and whoosh, there you are.

This is an event we at Cinema365 look forward to all year long. It is a chance to catch up with old friends, meet new ones and discover films we might not ordinarily have had a chance to see. It is one of the most filmgoer-friendly festivals in the country and consistently shows up in lists of top Film Festivals around the world. It is an event you shouldn’t miss and if you are or can be in the Orlando area from April 10th through April 19th, you owe it to yourself to check this out. If you can make it, be sure and drop us a line at cinema365@live.com and let us know so we can meet up. Look forward to seeing you all there!

Apollo 18


Apollo 18

These astronauts discover to their shock that the moon really IS made of green cheese.

(2011) Found Footage Horror (Dimension) Warren Christie, Lloyd Owen, Ryan Robbins. Directed by Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego

Once upon a time, traveling to the moon seemed like the ultimate adventure in human achievement. Then in 1969, we achieved it and it seemed like afterwards humanity did a collective ho-hum and we went on to other things, like toppling Latin American democracies. The moon landing program was curtailed after Apollo 17 in 1972.

But according to this film, there was one more mission in 1974 – one that landed on the South Pole of the moon (technically impossible according to the technology of the time), one that was made secret by the Department of Defense.

Astronauts Nate Walker (Owen) and Ben Anderson (Christie) along with Command Module pilot John Grey (Robbins) can’t even tell their families about their mission, which is top secret. They are tasked with positioning some listening devices on the surface of the moon that will help give early warning about missile launches from the then-Soviet Union.

However, the astronauts encounter something odd. Their communications are cutting out frequently because of an odd frequency which they think is being transmitted by the listening devices, although frankly that puzzles them because they shouldn’t be transmitting anything. They continue to do astronaut-like things – taking rock samples, driving the lunar rover around, and planting the flag.

However things take a decided turn for the strange. They discover a Russian landing vehicle in a nearby crater where they also discover the body of a cosmonaut who apparently was injured and died. Things get really weird when the astronauts try to take off and something slams into the lunar module, damaging it. Now they are in a race against time for survival – and they aren’t alone.

This is purported to be NASA footage from 1974 that was culled from hundreds of hours of footage uploaded to a bogus website (www.lunartruth.org) which the studio is marketing as actual footage. And yes, some of it is actual footage – from previous lunar missions, mixed in with footage shot in Vancouver.

This is Lopez-Gallego’s first English-language film after a couple of pretty nifty Spanish horror films. Like many Spanish directors, he has an eye for mood and a knack for increasing the tension nicely. There are plenty of startle scares here and quite frankly I cried out several times during the movie, something I very rarely do during horror movies. That’s money as far as I’m concerned.

Yeah, the whole found footage thing is getting a bit tired, but it is done cleverly here and great attention to detail is laid in, from shooting it so the horizon is low (as it is on the moon) to re-creating the lunar and command modules and shooting on 16mm film that is properly grainy and washed out, color-wise. All of these are effective.

The science here has been described as “preposterous” and quite frankly if you know that much about physics and engineering you’re going to be driven crazy, but then again that’s usually the case with most space-set movies. What it all boils down to is whether or not the movie is scary and as I’ve already stated, it is big time. Check your higher functions at the door and be prepared to have your primordial self pee its pants as your nightmares come to life on the multiplex screen.

REASONS TO GO: I’ve seen all sorts of horror films and most don’t scare me much; this one did.

REASONS TO STAY: The handheld cams are dizzy-making at times.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some nightmare-inducing scenes as well as some bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the movie, the actors walk normally on the lunar surface. In reality, astronauts had to shuffle their feet somewhat in order not to go leaping around the moon like gazelles because of the low gravity.

HOME OR THEATER: The lunar desolation should be seen on the big screen, but the 16mm cameras work on the home screen as well.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Bringing Out the Dead

Despicable Me


Despicable Me

Gru doesn't quite get the concept of mooning his audience.

(Universal) Starring the voices of Steve Carell, Jason Segel, Julie Andrews, Russell Brand, Will Arnett, Kristen Wiig, Miranda Cosgrove, Mindy Kaling, Danny McBride, Dana Gaier, Elsie Fisher, Pierre Coffin. Directed by Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin

It’s tough being a world-class villain. Not only do your grand schemes of world domination need to be extravagantly profitable, you always have to fight off some wet-behind-the-ears supervillain who wants to earn a reputation at your expense.

Gru (Carell) is as despicable as they come. He will make a child a balloon animal only to pop it; he’ll use his freeze ray on patrons in front of him in the line at Starbucks, and he’ll steal the Times Square Jumbotron to watch football games on. Unfortunately, there’s a new kid in town, a kid called Vector (Segel) and he’s outdone Gru by stealing the Great Pyramid at Giza.

This heats up Gru’s competitive juices to the boiling point, so he feels a need to one-up his new competition and his answer is elegant in its simplicity – Gru plans to steal the moon. Aided by his vaguely Twinkie-like Minions and his curmudgeonly scientific aide-de-camp Dr. Nefario (Brand, sounding nothing like Aldous Snow), all he needs is a shrink ray and a rocket. The shrink ray he can get – it’s the rocket that’s a problem.

Like any enterprising businessman, Gru goes to the bank to get a loan from the bank, but he can’t exactly walk into the nearest Citibank with a business plan that involves stealing a celestial body. Luckily for Gru, there’s always the Bank of Evil (in one of the film’s cleverest jokes, the front of the bank is emblazoned with “Formerly Lehman Brothers”). Unfortunately, Mr. Perkins (Arnett), the humorless blob of a bank president, is not willing to part with the money. You see, most of Gru’s grand schemes have, while successful, not been terribly profitable. However, if Gru can show the bank the shrink ray, they’ll give him the cash.

Easier said than done. The shrink ray is being tested by a Southeast Asian weapons laboratory, but Gru being nefarious and direct, steals the device by sawing a hole in the roof, sending a minion to manually operate a giant claw to pick up the ray gun and jet away. Hunky dory until Vector shows up to cut a hole in his roof.

Gru needs to retrieve the shrink ray from his archnemesis but infiltrating his modern, heavily defended lair proves to be impossible. However, Gru hits upon the scheme of sending in three orphans – Margo (Cosgrove), Edith (Gaier) and Agnes (Fisher) – to infiltrate the lair under the guise of selling Vector some cookies (cookies are Vector’s Achilles heel). Gru adopts the young tykes, but finds them to be major distractions, highly irritating and somewhat annoying. Can he rein in his young accomplices to carry out his diabolical plot, or will he succumb to the charms of the little girls?

These days computer animated features are a dime a dozen and audiences are demanding more sophistication and better stories. While Pixar continually delivers, the other animated studios are less consistent. This is Universal’s first computer-animated feature and the first in their partnership with Illumination Entertainment (who also have Hop and Flanimals on deck for 2011). So how did they do?

Well, there’s definitely a learning curve. Some of the movie works, but other places not so much. In checking out other reviews, I was amazed that most critics found the last half hour to be the best part of the movie; quite frankly, I was more impressed with the first part, when Gru is acting very much like the missing member of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. As the movie progresses, Gru gets more father-like and softer, losing much of the edge that made him notable early on.

Still, Carell does a good job with the character, vaguely channeling the Soup Nazi. The evil Gru is interesting, but it’s the Minions who steal the show. Certain to become pop culture fixtures for the younger set (in the same way Oompa Loompas did a generation ago), they’re cute and speak in funny voices, with a Looney Tunes-like tendency to do spectacular harm to one another. Don’t be surprised if they show up on a Saturday morning cartoon show in the near future.

The movie gets disappointing towards the end. It’s standard animated feature fare of the heart of a bad guy being melted by adorable little girls. That’s the type of thing Disney was doing 70 years ago. By the time the movie ends, Gru is bestowing good night kisses on his Minions. I can’t see a reason to see a sequel to this; Gru’s too soft, too ordinary. The more despicable Gru is, the better the movie is.

REASONS TO GO: The minions are awesome and Carell makes Gru memorable. There are some moments that are laugh-out-loud funny.

REASONS TO STAY: Typical animated feature fare; definitely skewed towards a younger crowd.

FAMILY VALUES: The movie has a PG rating due to rude humor but in my book, it’s perfectly fine for children of all ages.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The soda cup that the Carnival Barker is drinking from is based on the ones used at Walt Disney World, which has no midway games.

HOME OR THEATER: This is one of those rare instances where a movie is actually enhanced by 3D; unless you have a big screen 3D television, I would suggest a trip to the multiplex.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs

Moon


Moon

Ground control to Major Tom.

(Sony Classics) Sam Rockwell, Kevin Spacey (voice), Dominique McElligott, Rosie Shaw, Kaya Scodelario, Benedict Wong. Directed by Duncan Jones

As resources become more and more scarce here on Earth, it is inevitable that we will begin to look outward to fill our needs. Certainly mining on asteroids and on the moon seem to be logical solutions for those needs. It also seems logical that in such inhospitable environments, much of the work will be done by robotic machines. Where will humans fit in that equation and what will happen to them so far away from help?

Sam Bell (Rockwell) is getting near the end of his three-year contract. He is the lone caretaker and worker at an industrial mining base on the far side of the moon. His job is to maintain the remote mining vehicle that scoop up the rocks and refine them, and make sure that they are loaded onto unmanned vehicles that transport them to Earth.

He has no direct communication with home – because he is on the far side of the moon, the signal must be bounced off of Jupiter and sent back home, a process that takes several days. He exists on taped messages from his wife (McElligott) and interactions with the station computer GERTIE (Spacey) who shows emoticons to supply an emotional context to the calm, soothing monotonic voice that issues from the voice synthesizer.

When Sam has an accident on the lunar surface, he wakes up in the medical bay with no memory of the accident or how he got back to the base. It takes him some time to recover, but when he discovers that one of the mining vehicles isn’t working, he takes a trip out there to fix it and discovers something shocking.

Beyond that you don’t need to hear more. Suffice to say there are some plot points that are unexpected and give the movie a whole new twist. That makes it a very refreshing and unique science fiction film, one that doesn’t rely on monsters or mutants or spectacular spacecraft battles.

The look of the movie is very much influenced by 2001: A Space Odyssey and Outland. The environment of the base is sterile and antiseptic but very much lived in, from the pin-up pictures on the walls to the dings and scratches on the surfaces of the walls and furniture.

This isn’t what you would call action-packed either. Instead, Moon relies on Rockwell to carry the picture and as he has proven in a number of recent movies, he’s perfectly capable of it. Much of the movie is Rockwell conveying the loneliness and frustration of being so near to returning home to his family; there are moments that are quite moving in that sense, but Rockwell doesn’t need to go over the top to get there, so he reins it in.

That’s a wise choice as an actor; this movie is not loud or obnoxious. It’s a quiet movie meant to inspire reflection and thought rather than visceral chest-pounding testosterone-inducing thrills. The movie has some points to make about the dehumanizing elements of industry and the inherent loneliness of working a dangerous job far from home.

The movie got a lot of buzz coming out of Sundance in 2009, and for my money, earned every bit of it. This isn’t the kind of movie that is going to set off fireworks and oohs and ahhs from the audience from its eye candy. Instead, it’s going to stick in your mind for weeks afterwards as you try to wrestle with your own ideas that the movie’s plotline leads you to. I’m not sure if it will qualify as a classic (something tells me that in years to come, it will be considered just that) but it certainly is the kind of movie they haven’t made since the era of Kubrick – hard science fiction. Guys like Larry Niven and the late John W. Campbell should take heart that the genre they made great is still alive and well.

WHY RENT THIS: The movie is certainly different than most sci-fi features we’re used to. It’s refreshing in that you never know exactly what’s going to happen next.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Much of the movie involves Sam interacting with the computer or watching old messages; in other words, not a lot of action or interaction here.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is pretty blue and there are some moments that might be too intense for youngsters, but this will be fine for teens that are into sci-fi.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Duncan Jones is David Bowie’s son. While this is his first feature film, he’s directed a number of commercials in the United Kingdom.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Another science fiction short by Jones, Whistle about a contract assassin who uses satellite surveillance, is included on Blu-Ray editions along with a making-of featurette that includes director Jones answering questions at the movie’s Sundance Film Festival premiere and at a later screening at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Do watch the movie before seeing the featurette, however – some major spoilers are revealed during the featurette.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice